22 years ago today, October 31, Halloween, I had my first memorable panic attack. I say memorable because prior to that, I remember two other moments in my life: one was before a French final sophomore year (who doesn’t panic before those) and another was junior year, after trying to show off to my friends that yes, yes the nerd girl can drink beer; I downed four really fast. In both of those instances I was overwhelmed with the sensation that I had to run, that a bear was chasing me, that I was so terrified I might actually craw out of my body. Classic symptoms—well, classic to me now as an almost fully trained and certified mental health counselor with years of counseling and personal experience with anxiety and panic behind me— that no longer scare me (as much) but terrified me back then. Those moments prior to the memorable panic attack didn’t last more than a few minutes, and I just brushed them off.
But the Big One on Halloween evening 1992 was a hallmark moment (and not the good kind, the lower case kind). I was standing in the kitchen making myself some dinner before going out with friends for a Halloween evening of scary movie watching when I was seized from head to toe in spine chilling fear. For absolutely no apparent reason.
I became completely agoraphobic for almost 6 weeks after that first memorable panic attack.
Though I eventually climbed my way out of the agoraphobia, went on to apply and get into a whole bunch of colleges, and have a somewhat normal senior year of high school, that panic attack on Halloween of 1992 was the beginning of what would become an almost decade long struggle with panic and anxiety. Only motherhood at age 28 cinched it for me, and I soon could count not months but years between panic attacks.
So image my surprise when, just this year back in March, they returned. They returned, but it was more like me feeling annoyed by them because they would happen at the very worst time. Driving. I brushed them away though, trying to find ways to distract myself from them. Focusing on the car right in front of me, making sure that I only drove on the right side so I could be near the shoulder just in case (just in case of what? A panic attack? That was happening any way but the mind of a person caught in their cycle of anxiety becomes, well, irrational. ) After a month of struggling and soon avoiding driving to certain places, I had what I call my second hallmark (again, lower case kind) moment on April 30 of this year. Roughly 22 years after my very first one. This one was similar to that one in that I became paralyzed by the fear, and like my senior year, I recoiled into a shell of myself and completely shut down. I stopped functioning normally (no driving, only working sparingly, unable to be alone, like as in alone in a room, even) and had safety signals of my husband, mother, and best friend; if they weren’t within sight, I became anxious to a level ten. I spiraled down very quickly and within weeks was not recognizable to myself.
But don’t panic! : ) This didn’t last too long (about 2 months before I started to live again). I happen to be a really hard worker and very determined, so I threw myself into therapy and worked really hard at coming back into my life.
There are a couple of differences this time around. This time I went from anxiety into a deep, deep depression. Something I had never experienced before. Depression scared me as much as anxiety, actually more so because depression makes you think about things from a very dark and helpless place and you feel like you cannot crawl out.
It’s at this point that those of you who don’t suffer from anxiety or depression are dying to know, well what happened? What caused these break downs (yes, I am really comfortable admitting that I had an emotional break down back in April and back in 1992. Most people have them they just don’t admit it.)
I could write a grocery list of events that were going on that would probably set anyone into a highly emotional state of anxiety. Back in 1992, it was applying to college, my parents marital problems, an on again off again destructive relationship with a boy, a borderline eating disorder, friend problems, on and on. And same with now— I mean anyone who is 39-years-old, trying to work, complete a graduate program, raise their children, be a good wife, have time for yourself, write and publish books, and see your friends and family feels the vice grip pressure of the unwinnable game of Having It All. Not to mention, around this time we lost one of our family pets and the other had a stroke in front of me (both we’ve had since we got married 15 years ago). So when I fell apart, no one was surprised, and everyone was incredibly sympathetic.
But here’s the thing, as we sometimes say in therapy—the content doesn’t really matter; it’s the theme and it’s the behavior (yeah, I’m a little bit of a cult follower of CBT because it saved my life). So what was the theme of the things, events, and moments that caused me such anxiety and how did I respond? I’m not sharing the theme (too personal) but once I figured that out it helped me to at least understand what the anxiety and depression were connected to. But, most importantly, how did I respond? Well, I recoiled, I withdrew. And, thus, I spiraled.
My point in writing this isn’t to talk about the why of my anxiety and depression because a.) Too personal even for me and b.) The why really doesn’t matter in terms of getting better and moving through it.
So my point. I’m going to get to it. It’s this: The way we talk to ourselves about and the way we respond to our feelings of anxiety and depression is what that truly f*** us up.
Yes, there is a biochemical component to this, and I have it, two fold. I’m biochemically wired to be prone to depression and anxiety, hereditarily, as in, DNA-wise (I had my DNA tested). All it takes is too much physical and emotional stress (I mean years worth of it) to send me down the long, blindingly dark road of anxiety and depression.
I had to work by ass off to get better. But the ability to do that is also in my DNA; it’s the same set of genetics that is both responsible for my speedy flight or flight response to non-life threatening (and life threatening) situations and my ability to do, as my husband says, three thousand things at once. It’s the same set of genes responsible for my boundless energy and for my enthusiasm to learn and grow. It’s the same set of genes that allows me to be really disciplined with school, working out, and time management.
So back to my point. My point is this. Depression and anxiety are in our genes. It’s there like Type 1 Diabetes is in some other folks. It’s there just like some forms of cancer. It’s there just like your eye color. It’s there and you have to learn to live with it and deal with it. You cannot hide in your closet forever.
The good news is that so much research has gone into anxiety and depression (which, by the way, I do not view as mental illnesses but rather mental conditions, but that’s another blog post). We have many many therapeutic modalities and medications that can help. But guess what? There is no magic in getting better. Even medications, cognitive behavioral programs, meditation, Acupuncture—none of those things just work, you have to work them.
That’s the first point I want to make and the second is subtler yet harder to grasp. It’s this: we have to stop being afraid to feel our emotions. Anxiety and depression are like dogs—if a dog knows you are afraid, it will respond in kind. If you respond to anxiety and depression with fear based behaviors, it will only get worse.
The shift for me this time around with anxiety and depression was that I finally let go and accepted that this is what I was feeling. It’s there both physically and mentally, but that I actually did have choices. I could do nothing and stay in my closet and cry, or I could get out and live. And here’s the key, I was going to life my life while feeling the anxiety and depression (it’s called exposure therapy in the counseling bizz). So I drove, worked, took care of my children, was home alone, road my bike, went to see friends, all while anxious and depressed. All while having those yucky body symptoms of anxiety and the heavy and scary sensations of depression.
I’m not saying any of this was easy. I often felt I was carrying 100 pounds on my back as I tried to live; I had debilitating anxiety and depression for those first few months, and every step out of my house, out of my bedroom, terrified me. But I still kept going. I walked through the walls of anxiety and depression because, as they say, the only way out is through. Doing this enough over time I had these clicks. Every few months, a click would settle in, like, look you have been driving to Providence for the last week and you made it! Yay you! Or, you worked an entire 8 our day and though you are tired you did it! Or, your husband was away overnight and you were fine! Each time I walked through the wall of anxiety and depression by living my life a click towards getting better occurred. The thing was my goal no longer was to feel better to but feel better. That is allow the feelings I had to be there and yet still live my life.
We have it in our culture that HAPPY is the goal and FULFILLED and PRETTY and YAY! That real deal is that actually it’s impossible because the human body is not wired for that. It’s wired to have a range of moods and emotions and thoughts that are both what we would call HAPPY and SAD and all the stuff in between.
So today Halloween 2014, this is what I want to say, and it’s a really fitting day to do it, get out there and live—face the ghouls and goblins of your mind, look them in the eye and don’t fight. Don’t resist. Just simply let them be and walk through the walls of fear and sadness.